Jun Mizutani recently sat down with a Japanese table tennis reporter to discuss the Tokyo Olympics, the pandemic, Tomokazu Harimoto, playing doubles with Koki Niwa as two lefties, playing doubles with Mima Ito, and life after table tennis. Edges and Nets has provided an English translation below. All photos in this post are taken from the original website of the interview.
Please note that this translation was done via Google Translate with corrections for obvious mis-translations of table tennis terms; no Japanese speakers were involved. Translating Japanese pronouns into English gives Google Translate difficulties, and we did our best to correct the pronoun mistranslations to match the context, but there may still be errors.
On the Pandemic
First of all, I would like you to look back on the 2020-21 season. I think it was a difficult situation due to the pandemic, but what kind of year was it?
Mizutani: There were few matches, so I couldn’t confirm my condition. The only thing that was big was that the T-League was held for one season. Unfortunately, Kinoshita Meister Tokyo [Mizutani’s team] couldn’t achieve the third straight victory, but as an individual, I was able to win 13 singles, so I think it wasn’t bad.
How would you rate your performance on a scale to 100?
Around 70 points? I think there is still room for growth.
Please tell us your feelings when the Tokyo Olympics were postponed, which should have ended before the opening of the T-League last year.
In many ways, I had the feeling that it was “quite difficult.” All domestic and international games are gone, and I don’t know when I can play. There were various restrictions on practicing. I had never had such an experience, so I had a really hard time.
I think it was difficult to maintain motivation.
That’s right. Even though I thought “I have to do my best for the Olympics!”, I sometimes felt depressed, “I wonder if it will be held …”. There was a wave in my feelings. But now that the event is approaching and it’s becoming more and more realistic, my motivation is very high.
A the moment when the Olympics were postponed, Mizutani’s face came to my mind first. “Is it okay?” “What should I do?”
If it were true, I might have retired around August last year (laughs). Now that I am confident that I can still do it, I think I can do my best until next year even if it is postponed again.
I was relieved to hear that. Is there any part of the condition that has improved over the past year that lead to your current confidence?
Is it a place where you can “return to the old days”? Recently, I’ve returned to the feeling I had when I was a high school student or college student who was playing table tennis and was crazy about it.
Did you have any chance [to return to the old days of being passionate]?
I’m sure it’s because I feel that the rest of my competitive life is short. I’ve always liked table tennis, but I can’t do it anymore. Because of that kind of loneliness, I think I can practice with a lot of strength like I used to.
Does the fact that you have more time to think about table tennis and look back at the pandemic also have an effect?
I think it is. On the other hand, when I couldn’t play table tennis, I tried some things, “let’s do something different.” But in the end, none of them lasted long. So when I practiced for the first time in a while, I thought, “Oh, I like table tennis after all.” I think that the feeling of “I like table tennis” that I felt anew is connected to my current self.
By the way, what is the “something different” that you tried?
First of all, I played a game (laughs).
Oh, is it “Clash Royale” that was showing off his skills on TV programs?
You know it well (laughs). I also held a tournament myself. I often talk about games with Harimoto in the bath [possible alternate translation: locker room?]. I talk about private things that have nothing to do with table tennis, the Olympics, Chinese players, etc., but 50% talk about games.
On Tomokazu Harimoto
That’s right. Now that you mentioned Mr. Harimoto, how do you see his growth as a player?
It seems that he is gradually feeling a sense of responsibility. Even in recent practice, after everyone finished the curriculum, they practiced independently for another hour. I am also working hard on training. Harimoto is already in the third year of high school. I think this is a time when one can grow up as a table tennis player and as a person, so I feel that he is facing table tennis more firmly than ever before.
Harimoto has sometimes raised mental control as an issue, but do you have the impression that he is also doing well in mental control?
I think he’s done very well since the beginning of this year. It was the same not only in the national team but also in the T-League, but last year he was disappointed when he lost the game, and he felt regret. He was more depressed than the team, he was more depressed about what he lost, and he wasn’t completely blown away. However, this hasn’t happened since the beginning of this year, and he’s in very good shape. He also won the singles at the international tournament held in Qatar in March, and I feel that he is growing steadily.
What do you feel is growing in his play?
He’s back to the aggressive play style he used to have. When Harimoto is off, his play becomes defensive, and in many cases he is attacked by his opponent and cannot defend himself. But lately, I can see that he is taking advantage of that reflection and facing the game with the intention of aggressively attacking himself.
On Koki Niwa and Playing Doubles Together
The mental and play aspects are definitely evolving, aren’t they? Please tell us your impression of another national team member, Koki Niwa.
The approach to table tennis has changed. I think Niwa has a “genius skin” in terms of play, or a play style that doesn’t look like a hard worker, but in practice it’s moving tremendously. I wondered if that movement would really be used in games. It’s also interesting to practice mainly on the basics, even though you play so messed up in a match.
Niwa is a genius player, I was a little surprised that the main practice was basic practice.
I don’t think that was the case in the past. Immediately before the last Rio Olympics, he was so stressed that he couldn’t practice for weeks, and sometimes he escaped from reality. But this time, he’s doing basic practice every day, so I’m glad it looks okay. He’s my doubles partner, but he’s a player who has his own world, so I think I have to read what he’s thinking.
Do you have any concerns that you are both left-handed for doubles?
Certainly, the pair of two left-handed players has hardly been seen in the world for the past 15 years. There was also a talk that either I or Niwa should team up with Harimoto because it is difficult to move. However, Harimoto still wants to be an “ace player” (a player who plays two games in singles), so naturally the team took on its current form [where Niwa and Mizutani are paired]. I have been practicing with Niwa quite a bit, and every time I do it, I make new discoveries and understand our weaknesses, so I feel that I am growing step by step despite the difficulties.
Because the hard part is, how do I move?
That’s right. Everything is difficult, both after serving and after receiving.
Still, are there upsides as well?
There is definitely. The merit of teaming up two left-handed players is that both can provide the same service as in singles, and it is possible to attack with a chiquita even in receive. I think it will give us a great advantage in that respect. Also, from the opponent’s point of view, I think it’s definitely their first time to play against a lefty/lefty pair. I have no experience either.
Certainly, you can play a match against an opponent who has never played against a lefty/lefty pair while always holding an advantage.
There is definitely an advantage in terms of feelings. However, if you do it properly, you won’t win 100%. If you can play normally and win, there would be more lefty/lefty pairs. So our strategy is not to play a normal doubles match, but to use a lot of tricky play to confuse our opponents. So I think you’ll feel like you’re watching a completely different competition.
On Mima Ito
You will also participate in the Tokyo Olympics in mixed doubles. It’s been about two years since you made a pair with Ito from the Korea Open held in July 2019. Please tell us your impression of Ito again.
When I first formed the pair, I was confused by the variety of Mima Ito’s plays. Whether it’s service or receive, it’s a new technique I’ve never seen, I take a course, and the returned ball is also unique, so I couldn’t handle it easily. Even so, the pairing is getting better as the number of games increases, and I feel that the combination is getting better even in practice.
Ito is from the same club (Toyota Town Table Tennis Sports Boy Scouts), and she has a well-known relationship [with Mizutani]. Since she was little, she was called “Falcon” (laughs).
I’m abandoning it now (laughs).
You’re fighting in doubles with Ito, but is your impression different from what it used to be?
I have strong memories of when she was in kindergarten, so there may be parts where I can interact with her as she were in the past.
Is it like a cute little sister?
It really feels like that. However, the moment I stand in front of the table tennis table, I become the face of a top athlete representing Japan. I also look at it with respect.
On His Chance Of Winning Gold in Mixed Doubles
About a year ago, it was said that in mixed doubles you and Ito had a 65-75% chance at medaling and a 20% chance at gold. Has that percentage changed?
We are second in the mixed doubles world rankings, so we will probably be the second seed. In that case, I think that the possibility of medals has increased to about 70-80% because we will not hit the Chinese pair [Liu Shiwen and Xu Xin] until the finals. The gold medal is also adjusted very nicely, so it’s about 30%.
It indeed has gone up a lot. I think the biggest rival is China’s Xu Xin & Liu Shiwen pair, but looking at the competition results so far, it is a painful result without a victory in four matches.
There is not much difference in ability among us, and I think that we are in a position to win, so I think that the rest is a big part of my feelings. Looking back, in the 2019 Grand Final final, while leading the set count 2-0, we lost three games at once and lost the matches. As I continued to lose, I started to think “I want to win” and “I think I can win” during the match, and I felt less motivated to go, or I was a little defensive. If I can get rid of that, I think the probability of winning will increase.
Is there anything you are working on specifically?
Recently, I’ve been practicing a reverse horizontal rotation serve called YG (Young Generation) service. I don’t usually use it a lot in games, but there are many players who have trouble with YG service regardless of gender. That’s why I want to use it as a big weapon at the Olympics.
Certainly, Mizutani has an image that YG service will be released at this moment.
I think so. The reason why I haven’t used it so much is that the YG service is a very complicated rotation, so the returned ball is also complicated. In that case, it would be difficult for Mima Ito to hit the third ball, so it was a big risk to put it out many times. But on the contrary, if you master it, it will definitely become a big weapon, so I am currently practicing hard. Already, Mima Ito’s trust in hitting the third ball firmly even for complicated receives has increased considerably.
Other rivals include Taiwan’s Lin Yun-ju & Cheng I-Ching and South Korea’s Lee Sang-su & Jeon Ji-hee. What is your impression of them?
I’ve been able to win the Taiwanese pair without much effort, so I think it’s a great match. However, I lost to the Korean pair in the semi-finals of the Qatar Open in March. As for the cause of defeat, there are many patterns in which male players are left-handed and female players are right-handed in pairs from other countries, but the Korean pair is the opposite and a little special. That’s why I was confused by the return ball, which has a different nature than before. It didn’t mesh well from beginning to end.
I was watching the game, but I had the impression that you couldn’t break the bad momentum.
That’s right. My play was also really bad. But I’m sure I’ll be able to play well at the Olympics, and I don’t think we’ll get similar results.
On the Tokyo Olympics and Beyond
However, what I am really worried about is the condition of Mizutani’s eyes. Recently, I think some people have said that “the naked eye is better”, but what is your current state?
I’ve been practicing with the naked eye for a long time now, and I feel that it’s a little better than it used to be. For the time being, new sunglasses will arrive, so I haven’t decided which way to go. We plan to make a decision after previewing the Tokyo Metropolitan Gymnasium, which is the venue for the match.
I just pray that you will be in the best condition. The opening of the Tokyo Olympics is approaching, but what is the position of Mizutani in this tournament, which will be your fourth appearance?
I think it’s my first and last chance to win a gold medal. The next Paris tournament will be difficult due to age, and this time it will be held in Tokyo, so I would like to prepare so that I can demonstrate all my abilities.
You’ve always been told that you’ll retire after the Olympics, but do you still feel that way?
Yes. However, I think that I will retire from the international competition, but I wonder if I will continue to play table tennis … It may be quite ambiguous (laughs).
I’m getting ahead of myself, but what do you want to do other than table tennis after the Olympics?
That’s not the case at all. I also like soccer and baseball, so I have a desire to try it, but I’m tired of it. There is no such thing as “I want to continue doing this!”
It’s strange that people who have been playing table tennis for such a long time get bored. How about being a commentator? I think you commentated on the finals at this year’s All Japan Championships.
If I get an offer, I would like to try it. It feels like “I wish I could.”
Finally, please share with us your enthusiasm for the Tokyo Olympics.
As a culmination of myself, I would like to express all of my 27 years of competitive life in performance. The goal is to play so far away from humans that the viewer thinks “I can never imitate that myself”, so please take a look.
By the way, do you not wear underwear at this tournament as well?
Naturally. Needless to say.
If you change it suddenly, the condition will go crazy. Thank you for this time. I’m looking forward to your success!
If you liked this post, please share it with your friends and follow Edges and Nets on Facebook , Instagram, and Twitter to stay updated. Read other interviews that we have aggregated and translated here.